It is hard to blame any one side for the unfortunate caste clashes in large parts of Maharashtra, including Mumbai and Pune, following the 200th anniversary celebrations of the British victory over the Peshwas in the Bhima-Koregaon village, last Monday. The Dalits were lined up with the British, and against the Peshwas, in that battle 200 years ago. A huge gathering of Dalits to mark the event was addressed by rabble-rousing hotheads, among them a newly-elected Dalit member of the Gujarat Assembly and a student leader from the JNU who had gained notoriety for calling for azaadi for Kashmir a few months ago.
The said duo, Jignesh Mewani and Umar Khalid, who are being mentored by the controversial NGO, Sahmat’s zealots, such as Shabnam Hashmi, were in the forefront of igniting the divisive caste fires. Though certainly unjustified, leaders of the upper caste Marathas, whose economic and social conditions are often worse than those of the Dalits, reacted with anger against what they called the ‘celebration of the British imperialists’ victory’ over the Indians. Soon, the anger erupted into violence on the streets in Pune and some other parts of the State. The death of a 28-year-old Maratha, who was not part of the protests in the clashes on the day of the rally further aggravated the situation. The State-wide bandh call given by a number of Dalit leaders on Wednesday evoked a partial response, with some trains, buses and markets forced to shut down in the Mumbai suburbs. Precautionary measures by the State Government helped keep the situation under control, though the fear of the unknown kept most people indoors. Mumbai bore the brunt of the protests, with suburban trains suspending services on certain sections. On the whole, the damage was contained. Late in the afternoon, the bandh was called off by the Dalit groups.
Yet, it would be a huge mistake to ignore the renewed threat of caste clashes in an era when the media revolution is fanning an epidemic of rising aspirations and sharpening socio-economic conflicts. With the old caste-based hierarchies completely breaking down, the huge economic disparities further fuel the popular discontent against a system perceived to be weighted in favour of the upper castes. Given the relatively small size of the national cake, especially compared to an ever-rising population, the popular perception that the upper castes have a better deal against Dalits might not be true.
Indeed, in the case of Maharashtra, in recent years the economic scales have tilted in favour of the OBCs and the Dalits, as confirmed by authoritative studies by independent scholars. Yet, the old prejudices and biases persist. Some of it is because of the highly indefensible practices associated with the age-old case system which assigned a lower stratum to certain castes and kept them suppressed. However, thanks to the special reservations and other provisions, the status of both, OBCs and the Dalits, has improved markedly while that of upper castes has failed to make commensurate socio-economic progress. The fact that the Marathas, the Patels, the Jats, etc. are demanding reservations is proof of their deteriorating economic conditions. In such an environment, the last thing that is needed is the inflaming of casteist fires by irresponsible community leaders.
In particular, it is alarming that Mewani should share the platform with someone like Umar Khalid whose pro-azaadi rhetoric on the JNU campus had caused misgivings even among the anti-BJP circles. Indeed, the very celebration of an event two hundred years ago which marked the defeat of the indigenous Indian forces at the hands of the colonial power, thanks to the collaboration of a group of local people aggrieved by the harsh treatment meted out to them by the upper castes, is an affront to the patriotic people. No grievance, no injustice, should normally warrant a brother teaming up with the enemy to fight a tyrannical brother. History is replete with instances how without the active help of the locals, the British could not have subjugated this country for over 200 years. We wish, instead of celebrating an event which seeks to needlessly rub the nose of the Marathas in the dust, the Dalit leaders had joined hands with the other castes to seek an egalitarian order and justice. Sowing the seeds of division will not further the Dalit cause; it will only create further fissures in the society and make delivery of socio-economic justice that much harder.